Starting tomorrow evening, Jews around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Passover. If you’re not familiar with the holiday, it’s an eight-day, eight-night celebration that is different than all the other days and nights, particularly when you take a look at what Jewish families are not eating: bread. Most bread and wheat products are forbidden during the holiday, in remembrance of the biblical story recounting their ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt. (The short version of that story: while fleeing their pursuers, the ancient Jews didn’t have time for their bread to rise.)
Some Jews, however, go even further when it comes to this bread ban. Not only won’t they eat anything that is bread or bread-like, called “chametz,” but they also won’t own any whatsoever. (Yes, I know “bread or bread-like” isn’t the actual definition of chametz, but it’s close enough for our purposes today.) Typically, that means that Passover is the time to do a top-to-bottom house cleaning, but of course, you’re never going to find every crumb or speck. The practical limitations for families are addressed through ritual; the night before Passover, families engage in the “search for chametz” — they break out a candle and a feather and search for those last little bread-like items they missed. That tradition includes a prayer, as you’d expect from a religious ritual, but it also comes with a declaration, as summarized by Chabad:
All leaven or anything leavened which is in my possession, which I have neither seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.
Basically, you disavow ownership of any remaining bread.
Now, that’s great if you’re diligent about your cleaning and, for that matter, your pre-Passover eating — it’s not all that hard for a family to stop buying bread a week or so before the holiday. But for businesses, that’s not so easy. Managing your inventory is hard enough without rules that require you to suddenly have to discard a ton of it to comply with the rules of the holiday. So Judaic scholars came up with a solution: a ritual sale of bread. As the Orthodox Union explains, “Torah Law allows a Jewish person to sell any chametz or potential chametz they or their company own to a [non-Jewish person] prior to Passover. [ . . . ] With this sale, the chametz belongs to a person who is not Jewish for the duration of the holiday. At the conclusion of Passover, the original Jewish owner may purchase his chametz back from the buyer. The sale contract gives the original owner exclusive rights to buy it back after Passover.” The chametz never physically goes anywhere and while the buyer and seller-back may get a small fee for his or her services, often, they’re willing to help their neighbor out without taking a slice (be it bread or cash).
In many places, local rabbis and synagogues will help facilitate this ritual — they’ll find a buyer who will take temporary ownership of all of your bread, if you so desire. And in Israel, the government makes it even easier: the state sells all of its chametz anyway, so the government works with the chief rabbinate to streamline the process. All of the chametz given to the rabbinate to sell, plus all of the chametz owned by the state, is funneled into one huge transaction.
And of course, to make that sale, you need a buyer. But you only need one buyer. And, as recently as 2018, that buyer was a man named Hussein Jabar (pictured above), an executive at a hotel outside of Jerusalem. As Jabar told Haaretz that year, on the night before Passover, he sits down with the country’s finance minister and chief rabbinate to execute a contract. Jabar told Haaretz that, upon signing, “all the chametz in the state” and “the leavened products that are on the way to Israel, on planes, on ships – it’s all mine. [The finance minister] grants the rabbis power of attorney, and the rabbis sell it to me.” An auditor estimates the value of all of that food — in 2018, it was roughly $300 million — but Jabar only has to put together a smaller down payment of roughly $14,000. The remaining $299,986,000 and change is due when Passover ends eight days later.
For the next week-plus, Jabar has an opportunity to come up with the rest of that money, but of course, that’s a Herculean task — very few people have that kind of dough (sorry). So, year-in and year-out, Jabar fails to make the final payment. The contract is annulled, he gets his down payment back, and Israel gets its bread back. And while it sounds kind of like a joke, Jabar claims that he at least tries to complete the sale; as he told the Times of Israel one year, “I’ll get the money. Why would it be funny? We have a signed contract, it’s a serious challenge.”
But really, he probably knows better — and he’s just being a mensch. In 2013, the Jerusalem Post asked him if being part of this do-si-do (sorry again) feels weird to him; Jabar replied by simply saying “No. I understand it very well and if I can help, why not? I’ll help with happiness.”
From the Archives: Nothing to Carp About: A story of gefilte fish, the Passover staple. (Okay, it’s only barely about gefilte fish.)